Autodesk: Next designers might be VR-native
Software Architectures

Autodesk: Next designers might be VR-native

When people talk about the most influential desktop software companies in history, lots of companies get a mention from Lotus to WordPerfect and from Microsoft to Adobe. Perhaps because it is seen as a maker of specialist tools, Autodesk rarely gets a mention and yet this is a company that made the software behind many of the objects and buildings around us, from the iconic to the everyday.

Late last year I spent 30 minutes on the phone with Amar Hanspal, the senior VP for products at Autodesk, to talk about software and designs trends today and what’s coming around the corner. I followed up with email questions and the following text is a lightly edited version of that exchange.


What should we be getting most excited about in technology?

The advances we are seeing in terms of machine learning are some of the more interesting long-term trends in technology. Advances in compute power and access to vast amounts of data are enabling computers to better support decision making. In the world of building and manufacturing, when this technique is combined with new developments in digital manufacturing, such as additive, the canvas for product creation is changed forever. This lets us bring forward ideas such as generative design – where computers can assist designers to create strong and light structures that are generated using smart algorithms. We no longer have to explicitly model what we want, instead computers start with our requirements and co-design the solution with us. It's a completely new way of designing that comes up with utterly new ways of creating objects, and it’s going to transform many industries, especially construction and manufacturing.


In graphics design software, Adobe has long been bullish on cloud tools. How does Autodesk view cloud as opposed to traditional workstation-installed software?

Autodesk views the cloud as a fundamental new platform. More than just changing the method of software delivery and deployment, the cloud provides us with a way to address longstanding problems in the world of building and manufacturing. We are now able to connect people and processes and take previously disjointed processes for making things and make them more connected, more agile and flexible. Likewise, the economics of cloud computing means that previously inaccessible capabilities, like simulation and visualisation, can be democratized and made accessible to everyone in the process, improving decision making. 

Of course, through the cloud, organisations always have access to the most up to date tools, ensuring that they can stay on top of industry advances. Access to the tools from any device and anywhere also means that there is no delay in design time and that teams can collaborate more effectively and faster, creating far more innovative creations and enabling greater agility in their product development - responding to opportunities faster, from anywhere, at any time, at a scale that suits their business.


What do designers need to think more about for the future?

Designers must now think of their role in a world where computers are the collaborators and they have to spend more time fully understanding the problem they’re trying to solve and less time dealing with the mechanics that they’ve had to deal with in the past. In particular, giving intelligent computers the power (and responsibility) to design means we’ll see the role of designers change. Whether designing something as simple as a chair, or more complex objects such as an airplane cabin, car, bridge or building, the designer is increasingly acting as the coach – instructing the computer on evolving requirements and assessing the options that the computer returns with. Rather than being, say a product designer or an architect, individuals will play more of a curatorial role in the future.

This does mean however, that designers are going to have to become fluent in the language of new materials, manufacturing methods and more fully understand customer requirements. 


Is Autodesk already being used to design driverless cars, robots and drones?

Every major car manufacturer is already using Autodesk products to style and visualise the exterior and interior of their cars. As cars become more autonomous, the interior and exterior appearances play a bigger role in the value of these brands and we consequently expect these investments to grow. At the same time, consumers also expect them to be much more environmentally-friendly and car manufacturers are working on light-weighting their automobiles with new materials and manufacturing techniques that are based on Autodesk tools.

Likewise, many drone manufacturers are using Autodesk tools to develop the aesthetics and mechanical components of their flying robots. 


Why has 3D printing flopped so horribly and was it overhyped?

3D printing hasn’t flopped, but it has gone through the usual hype cycle with inflated expectations and a lot of attention paid to the consumer side of 3D printing. On the industrial side, the technology has matured enough to move from prototyping to high value/low volume production – in particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries. Furthermore, what we’re starting to see is tool and mould design, which has quietly moved into mainstream. Another example of how 3D printing is being advanced is by combining it with robotics. This allows faster and more accurate construction process as well as constructing complex design in a variety of forms and shapes without human involvement. Now, we’re creating simple objects, but we’ll eventually reach a stage where we have self-assembling structures, such as houses or bridges, cutting down on building costs and time. An example of this is a project MX3D is working on to 3D print a bridge in mid-air over a canal in Amsterdam. The combination of technologies such as robotics and 3D printing is allowing MX3D to print strong and complex structures from small parts to fully functional large bridges.


There is a series of open source alternatives – are they hurting Autodesk?

No, a variety of free design tools exist side by side with our commercial applications, including many from Autodesk. DWG [an Autodesk file format] is still the file format of choice for professional designers, with between three to five million DWG files opened each day. Through 35 years of continuous development and investment, Autodesk has built a strong network of more than 2,500 developers worldwide who regularly create new applications and customisations for AutoCAD and the DWG format alone.

We also know that our customers operate in a heterogeneous technology environment, so we take an open approach with the Autodesk Forge Platform that makes our APIs available to third party developers and customers to build applications for making the world around us. Autodesk has aggressively broadened the Forge platform and ecosystem in the past twelve months and, in this time, developers have created over 4,000 apps and services on Forge that span a variety of business needs ranging from part inspection to sub-sea surveying, from managing mines with drones to turning cost estimation into a competitive advantage.


Will VR and AR represent a new wave of business for Autodesk?

Through products such as Autodesk LIVE, Stingray and others, AR/VR is representing a new way that our customers are starting to design, make and use. In our AEC space, products like Autodesk LIVE are enabling designers to take their architectural models into an interactive virtual reality environment with one click. Autodesk game engines like Stingray are enabling game developers to create hyper realistic characters and environments in ways they couldn’t before. It gives people the ability to much more fully understand an environment before it is made. AR/VR is a different interaction paradigm; as we watched touch before an interaction paradigm and voice, it’s possible in the future that VR will be the way people ultimately design. Instead of designing on a screen, they’ll want to design in a digital environment.


How is the company positioning itself to do for VR/AR what it did for CAD/CAM?

We have always democratised technology at Autodesk. The role that Autodesk has taken is in taking things that are complex and making sure that our customers have the tools that they need to deliver. We’ve already succeeded in doing this in other environments and VR/AR offer further opportunities to do just that.  We have a sizeable investment between our office of the CTO, the M&E team and parts of the AEC & Manufacturing product development team to fully integrate VR/AR experiences at the right touch points.  We have partnerships with a number of VR/AR hardware vendors as well.


Will VR/AR’s role in B2B largely be confined to visualisations and demo walkthroughs? What are the challenges in designing for VR/AR?

VR/AR may turn out to be a fundamentally new interaction paradigm like voice, touch and text.  A lot of this depends on how quickly the hardware evolves and how issues such as latency and resolution in particular are handled. On the UX side, the interaction has to evolve from game-like walkthrough experiences to support more precise interactions for sculpting and modifying objects. There’s a lot more work to be done here.


What are your favourite examples of work done using your software?

I really like the Tesla Model S and the experience styling that was done using Autodesk tools along the way. I’ve always loved the car ever since I first saw it because it represented the combination of entrepreneurial brilliance and attention to detail that I think all good products must have. On the building side, I’m partial to history so I particularly like a recent project in the ancient city of Volterra in Italy, which was scanned using our software.


The success of Apple under Steve Jobs surprised many watchers that saw design and look and feel as peripheral and thought Dell had a better strategy of building cheap beige boxes. How did that change in mindset come about?

Most market segments eventually provide more than one category leadership opportunity.  Typically, there’s a premium leader, based on amazing customer experience and a price/performance leader based on value. You see this pattern play out in retail, in hospitality, and automotive, for instance.

Computing was largely IT-driven for most the 1990s and early 2000s.  As a result, most of what mattered was price and performance, and the “customer experience” that people paid a premium for was the IT experience. This is why companies like Sun or Oracle commanded a premium in those days. The arrival of the internet brought a different group to the forefront – the consumer – and this really exploded with the arrival of the smartphone. All of a sudden, the customer experience that mattered the most was the consumer’s experience and no one understood this better than Apple, who had the right product at the right time.

Price/performance (Dell’s earlier category) hasn’t gone away. It just has different players now – you see Lenovo, Asus and others now in the space that only Dell used to occupy alone.   


Also read:
Next tech dreamers swerve the Valley for San Francisco


«Q&A: AI and the supply chain


Typical 24: Dr. Mark K. Smith, ContactEngine»
Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Editorial Consultant for IDG Connect

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Nearly Normal on February 04 2017

Let's invent new vocabulary. VR native. Because all that the human population wants is to live in big head gear all the time.


Nearly Normal on February 04 2017

Let's invent new vocabulary. VR native. Because all that the human population wants is to live in big head gear all the time.

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